Why Every Woman Should Do Weight Training

Are you worried that training with weights will bulk you up or make you too muscular? In fact, such a workout can have an anti-ageing effect and transform you. So, you are stronger, inside and out!

By Dr Sheela Nambiar  • 15 min read

Why Every Woman Should Do Weight Training
Weight training and a healthy diet can transform you!

Sanjana (name changed for privacy) is a young mother. I was her doctor during her delivery. She went home thrilled with her newborn baby girl and eager to get back in shape. She had gained 15 kgs during pregnancy, way too much for her 5' 1'' frame. She had developed gestational diabetes during her pregnancy and I had explained to her that it was imperative she starts to exercise as early as possible — to knock off the weight but also to build muscle and prevent the development of full-blown diabetes in future.

She started evening walks a week after delivery and was soon walking almost 90 minutes a day. She was watchful of her diet as she had already been coached extensively on how to eat to combat diabetes during pregnancy. She lost the first five kilos within a short time but subsequently, the weight loss stalled. She was tired a lot and had a constant back-ache that just got worse with her posture while breast feeding. She had a permanent slouch and her abdomen was still flabby and protuberant with the accumulated fat during pregnancy and sagging muscles.

Being a new mom, when advised to start strength training, she was reluctant initially. Her family was horrified. How could a woman who was breast-feeding, train with weights? Eventually, she heeded the advice and start, she did. She was taught both own-body-weight exercises and some basic exercises to build the larger muscles using compound exercises and external weights. She was also taught exercises where she could use her older child (who was two years old), as her external weight, carrying him to do squats, lunges and so on. 

Sanjana loved the workouts! The results started to show pretty quickly. In the next six months, she lost all the excess weight and looked far better than she used to, pre-pregnancy. She was stronger, with a flat tummy minus the aches and pains. She also felt far more energetic and confident. Her slouch disappeared. 

Will I 'bulk up' with weight training? 

Although more and more women are waking up to the benefits of strength/weight training, many are still skeptical. Most women are happy to restrict their fitness to a cardio class, run endlessly on the treadmill or do yoga and shy away from the weight room usually for fear of ‘bulking up’ or ‘looking masculine’. The female hormone, estrogen however, makes it very difficult for women to become overly muscular. Instead, women who train regularly with weights achieve a more toned, lean and much stronger, more youthful physique.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) minimum exercise guidelines recommend 20 minutes of aerobic activity 3 days per week, and 1 set (8-12 repetitions) of 8 to 10 resistance exercises to train the major muscle groups 2 days per week.

Some researched benefits of strength training:

  • Increases muscular strength and size preventing fraility, aiding in the ease of performance of daily tasks (Kraemer, Wescott 2008)
  • Improves condition of the cardiovascular system (Fleck 1988, Stone 1991)
  • Prevents and treats osteoporosis (Conroy, Kramer 1992)
  • Increases self confidence (Harvard Health)
  • Prevents falls and injury (Mayer 2011)
  • Improvement in cholesterol levels (Kokkinos & Hurley 1990)
  • Treats muscles imbalance (with appropriate exercises)
  • Helps in the management of blood sugar (Smutok, 1993, Hurley 1988)

Stimulus and progression

With weight training, the key to seeing improvement and change is to challenge the muscles. That means the weights used for each exercise needs to be heavy enough to make it difficult for you to perform more than 6-10 repetitions of the exercise without needing a rest (making that one ‘set’ of the exercise). You should then proceed to do as many such sets as possible.

I often see women playing around with 2-3 pound dumbbells and wondering why they see or feel no difference. Don't be afraid to lift heavy and develop progression of the exercise by challenging yourself. Much of the effectiveness of weight training comes from this challenge and progression (Kramer 1994)

The ultimate anti-ageing pill!

While ageing is a natural process and one cannot truly prevent it from happening as time marches resolutely on, you can age gracefully in the best possible manner. I don't mean you have to cling kicking and screaming to the doors of your youth, but clearly, taking good care of your body and mind, keeps it youthful, yet allowing for wisdom. As a parent you would, I am sure, like to remain strong and able-bodied to enjoy your children and later, grandchildren.

Loss of muscle (or atrophy) is a well-known and debilitating result of ageing and disuse. Sedentary living and lack of physical exercise — especially, exercise against external resistance (as in strength training) — eventually leads to sarcopenia or decrease in muscle mass. Given that Indians already suffer from sarcopenia, this is a disastrous predicament. With age, muscle atrophy escalates, leading to poor mobility and decreased functionality. The muscles themselves age.

In a very interesting study done by Simon Melov et al, in 2007, they found that regular weight training for six months led to several changes in both the older and younger people studied.

  • The muscle size increased
  • The muscle strength improved
  • The very genetic expression within individual muscle cells was altered

What does this mean? A gene is a basic functional unit of heredity of a living organism. Genes form a part of our DNA and can be made up of several hundred or million DNA units. The genes present in the muscle determine the age of the muscle, wear and tear, ability to increase in size and strength. In the study by Melov et al, researchers found that following six months of strength training, aside from the obvious physical appearance of bigger, stronger muscles, several changes occurred at the genetic level. On microscopic evaluation of the muscle biopsies, several genes within the muscles studied were found to be enriched and the signs of ageing reversed. Meaning, not only did the muscles appear visibly larger, firmer and stronger but they were also genetically younger at a basic cellular level. 

Other benefits of weight training

Loss of bone or osteoporosis, is another age-related problem. According to Harvard Health, bone is lost at the rate of 1% after age 40, setting us up for hip and other fractures which are debilitating and often life-threatening. Weight training combats this problem by building bone mass and strength.

Strength training also improves cognitive function. In one analysis of several studies on the various forms of exercise, Kramer and Colcombe found that combining strength training and aerobic exercise produced better improvement in cognitive function than aerobic activity alone.

The most common ailments that plague you as you age — diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, obesity, falls and injuries, depression, loss of confidence as a result of loss of strength and balance — can all be prevented and treated with the right weight training schedule. Weight training, therefore, is an essential aspect of fitness if you want to keep your body looking youthful inside out. Strength training can be considered the ultimate anti-ageing pill!

The EPOC and REE of weight training

Fat loss is one of the main reasons people start to exercise. But, not including weight training to assist and sustain fat loss is one of the biggest mistakes you can make with your fitness routine. Here’s why: EPOC and REE — Two fancy terms often thrown around in fitness circles. EPOC stands for Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption and REE means Resting Energy Expenditure.

Have you ever touched the bonnet of a car immediately after it has been running a while? It feels warm. The heat generated during the drive sustains for a little longer. Similarly, after an exercise routine, the body is revved up and running at a higher rate of metabolism — burning more calories than before the exercise. EPOC otherwise called the 'after burn' is essentially the excess calories that continue to be expended following an exercise session. According to Len Kravitz, exercise scientist and researcher from the University of New Mexico, this is found to be elevated (if only marginally), following a weight training session. (Reynolds, Kravitz). Without our recognising it, some forms of exercise (like weight training) keeps the body metabolism elevated for much longer. Our body continues burning more calories even while at rest. Isn’t that the coolest thing to happen, especially if you are looking at losing fat? 

Not all forms of exercise do this to our bodies, however. Following a low-intensity, long duration session of cardio — like a long, low or moderate intensity walk — the body tends to return to normal metabolism and homeostasis (meaning, the ability of the body to maintain a stable internal environment, regardless of changes in the outside environment), pretty quickly. (Bahr 1991).

REE is the amount of energy the body requires to sustain daily normal activity, including the working of the heart, breathing, digestion, routine work and so on. It is basically the calories we burn during the course of the day. According to a study done by Hackney KJ from Wayne State Univ, Michigan, published in 2008, the REE was elevated for up to 72 hours after a weight training session.

The muscles in the body are responsible for a majority of the REE. The protein turnover (that is, the muscle protein breakdown and synthesis) within the muscles consumes enormous amounts of energy. Since most of the REE can be attributed to the muscles in the body, it stands to reason then that a more muscular body will burn more calories even while at rest. These calories or energy are tapped from fat storage depots within the body. Meaning, the body is using its own fat to sustain itself. Gain more muscle, lose more fat!

Basic principles of weight training

However, you cannot just dive into working out with weights. There are some essential points to keep in mind first. These include:

  • If you've never trained with weights before, get yourself a good trainer. You need to be taught every single exercise with all its ‘Do’s and Don'ts’ to prevent injury
  • Don't forget to warm up
  • You need to train with weights twice or thrice a week
  • The same body part (and therefore, muscles) should not be worked within 48 hours
  • Increase your weights gradually and challenge yourself on each exercise
  • Change the exercises at regular intervals to challenge the body
  • Use perfect technique or ‘form’ every single time you lift a weight
  • Learn the breathing technique for every exercise
  • A good trainer will be able to address any muscle imbalances you have

Your chest muscles (Pectoralis) may be stronger and tighter than your back (Latissmus Dorsi) for instance. They need to be trained accordingly and appropriately, to bring about balance in strength (to prevent ungainly inward rolling shoulders).

You can even use your strength training routine as your cardio by performing circuit training or super-setting. These are techniques whereby you move from one exercise to another with no rest. It keeps the heart and lungs also challenged. I’ve been teaching strength training to women for close to two decades. Although they also do cardio, they find the most benefits from strength training with the changing body shape as they lose abdominal fat and build the glutes and shoulders. They also have increased self-confidence and overall strength.

10 basic exercises

If you've decided to start working out with weights, then start simple. For example, you could begin with these basic exercises:

  • Dead lift
  • Shoulder press
  • Push-ups or chest press
  • Bent-over rowing or lat pull-downs
  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep dips or overhead extensions
  • Abdominal crunches/plank/side plank
  • Calf raises with weights

To know more about strength training, for women in particular, specific exercises in detail and how to build muscle to lose fat, my book Gain To Lose (available on Amazon) will be of some help. I am an ardent believer in strength training for women — having personally experienced the benefits myself and of course, having witnessed clients grow in strength, both within and without.

Dr Sheela Nambiar is an MD, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, lifestyle medicine physician, fitness consultant and the author of three books  Get Size Wise, Gain To Lose and Fit After 40

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